SALT LAKE CITY — In a commercial kitchen where Utah Community Action chefs prepare some 4,500 meals a day, teens taking part in Real Food Rising brought their youth development program full circle this week.
Crops cultivated by the youths on the program's 1.5-acre urban farm in west Salt Lake were prepared into elegant dishes served at a community luncheon at the farm. Picnic tables were covered with cloth coverings and adorned with Mason jars filled with sunflowers grown on the farm.
Leah Jang, 15, said it was very satisfying to nurture small plants into large plants that produced fruits and vegetables that could be prepared into a meal.
"It is satisfying, to see the full cycle — seeding it, maintaining it, harvesting it. I never had that experience before because everybody just gets their fruits and vegetables at the market and all their other food. One of my reasons for joining last year was 'cause I wanted this experience because maybe I don't get to have it the rest of my life," said Leah, whose parents were refugees from South Sudan.
The program, which was started by Utahns Against Hunger in 2012 and moved under Utah Community Action umbrella in 2015, teaches youths age 14-17 the finer points of organic gardening, sustainability and water conservation. However, working the patch of land owned by nonprofit Neighborhood House is but part of the experience.
Participants also learn job skills, how to write resumes, open bank accounts, teamwork and public speaking, which help transform the teens into powerful advocates for people experiencing hunger both through instruction and direct service at food pantries and soup kitchens.
Ryan Magdaleno, who will enter her senior year as a student at Horizonte Instruction Center this fall, has spent the past two seasons at the farm.
The program is fun and she has made many friends, "but we also do a lot of serious things that I really like and we do a lot with hunger, that's our main goal," she said.
Hunger is not confined to undeveloped countries or big cities, Magdaleno said. "Here in Utah, 1 in 8 people has food insecurity. It's great to help those people out and not just see them as statistics. You really get to interact with them and see their faces so that is great," she said.
The program is also part "Breakfast Club," in that it brings together youths who likely would have never had the opportunity to meet one another, let alone work collaboratively and try new things.
"I'm kind of a shy kid, so it's really great to know that everyone is open and willing to get to know you. It's great. I like being here with new people. It's fun," said Riley Castleton, 15, who travels to the farm each day from Tooele County.
This fall, Riley plans to get involved with the Future Farmers of America chapter at Stansbury High School, and he has enrolled in some agriculture classes.
"It's amazing what a little piece of land can develop into and how much food it can grow," he said.
This year, the program's adult leaders believe the land will produce some 15,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, some of which is sold at the program's farm stands or used for cooking classes or community lunches, where the youths work with professional chefs to also learn culinary skills.
This week, the youths worked with Liz Guerrero, head chef for Utah Community Action, to prepare a community lunch using vegetables, fruits and herbs grown at the Real Food Rising farm.
"They just get to work. You tell them what to do. They get their hands dirty and get in there, follow instructions real easily, great attitudes. It's awesome," Guerrero said.
Not only does she enjoy working with the youths and the challenge of devising menus that feature their crops, it takes her full circle to her youth, she said.
"My grandparents owned a farm. I grew up harvesting vegetables with them. Everything was cooked from scratch. So I kind of see it coming back again, helping them cook what they grew," she said.
Ryan said seeing the end product of the groups' labors was very satisfying.
"You kind of feel really cool. 'I planted this. It's mine. Now I'm going to eat it,'" she said.
Leah, a student at Salt Lake Center for Science Education charter school, is in her fourth season working on the farm.
"Probably the thing I enjoy most is the food they're giving out. They want to make sure it's clean, it's local and it's organic. You can give anybody who's hungry a can of soup or something, but what will benefit their bodies the most are those nutrients that come from fruits and vegetables," she said.
Leah said the program has also helped her hone her public speaking skills.
"I'm one of Jehovah's Witnesses and we go door to door talking to people, so that's really helped me. They do teach us how to talk to people at our meetings but here it just enhanced it. I feel more comfortable. I use more volume. I'm more confident. I notice really a difference so that's what I want to take with me, my public speaking skills," she said.
Noe Baker, who attends Highland High School, said the program taught her as much about herself as urban gardening.
Until taking part in Real Food Rising, Noe said she had preferred to work on her own.
"It's been a bit of a struggle to let myself work with others, to lend over some of the work. But I have learned to appreciate it and in the long run, it reduced the amount of work that is necessary," she said.
Erin Olschewski, community engagement coordinator, said one of great joys of the eight-week session is watching the youths, who start out as "quiet, reserved and holding back" teenage boys and girls to become members of a team who work collaboratively and have fun as a group.
"It's not cliquey at all," she said.
It is particularly satisfying when the teens develop a fuller understanding of the issue of hunger and that they, as a group and individuals, can do something about it.
"We give them this little nugget, 'This is something that's happening in our own community and we're going to do something about it.' They just take that and they ramp it up times 10 and turn it back to us as staff and encourage us to go beyond," she said.
Tour the farm with any of the youths and they can readily identify the crops and explain how they capture rainwater and the various irrigation techniques they employ.
Like the plants they cultivate, the youths understand that they, too, are growing as human beings as they learn more about themselves and the teens with whom they share the experience.
"Yes, we're growing way more than plants," said Noe, 15.